Anti-Catholicism, Architecture, Art, Brutalism, Cardross, Catholicism, Death, Gothicism, Graffiti, Graffiti Art, Health and Safety, Humor, Liberty, Opinion, Party, Puritans, Regulation, St Peter's Seminary, The Devil, Tourism
If the Puritan imagination soars in its revulsion of Catholicism – the mystery and superstition, the dark history and arcane rituals – it lands squarely in the world of Gothic horror, a literary genre which merely elaborates upon the existing attributes of the Catholic faith. The Spanish Inquisition is reduced to the Pit and the Pendulum, ghostly monks return to terrorise English country houses, and vampires are still faintly recognisable as the old priests, living amidst decay and drinking the blood of their gormless tenants.
Yet whilst no country could be more Puritan than Scotland, the logic of the Gothic imagination has accelerated with an unprecedented speed and power in the case of St Peter’s Seminary, which stands outside of Cardross on the West Coast. Forty-six years ago it was a thriving Catholic college and the flower of modern architecture. Today it is Scotland’s greatest Gothic monument, a breathtaking exemplar of ruin and decay. St Peter’s Seminary is the ultimate in the unambiguous, it is immaculate in its dread, and it is scarcely conceivable that a Protestant college could have ever fallen into a state of such extravagant Gothicism.
For a building which is visibly falling apart, it is also oddly tourist-friendly. There is a gentle stroll from Cardross station, past a helpful pub, and up the lane to where St Peter’s waits in its own sweet little wood. The structure is encircled by a forbidding security fence, but this is just there for appearances. A hole has magically opened up in the fence, as if an impassive face has slyly winked.
St Peter’s was designed by the architects Gillespie, Kidd & Coia, and it supposedly represents an application of Le Corbusier’s modernism to Scottish architecture. You can deduce what you can from the skeleton, as if running your eyes over the bones of a dinosaur and trying to imagine it as flesh again. A daring imagination may rebuild the seminary for the briefest of moments, substituting the blackened concrete and charcoaled beams for clean, tidy rooms, but the effort will be too great, the translation will be too difficult, and the half-erected chapels and lecture halls will fall back, an incomplete suggestion.
The seminary lacks the clunky Brutalism of comparable campus projects by Basil Spence, it is sensible and at times graceful in places, in its own forlorn concrete way. With all of that stark concrete, however, it probably looks more impressive as a shell than it ever did as an inhabited building. With almost everything perishable now burned or long gone, St Peter’s is today virtually a silhouette.
Everything is laid out for your inspection – there are no locked doors, no secrets – but there is vicious treachery behind this apparent welcome. The dilapidation is heaped tentatively on thin concrete pillars – it looks like a single sneeze would bring the whole edifice to its knees. Disintegrating floors dare you to tread on them, you brush against broken glass everywhere, you take your life into your hands if choosing the wrong staircase, and there is always a sense that strangers are lurking somewhere else in the building, just out of earshot. The footsteps that you may have heard down behind the altar are most likely to be those of the Devil, who is patrolling his latest acquisition and smiling with satisfaction.
The visitor is first drawn to the altar, which awaits your mocking with abject resignation. This chunk of concrete has quaked under years of sarcasm – every form of obscenity must have been committed on it. I merely crack open a can of beer, careful to speck some foam. Perhaps this poor altar is grateful for my lack of imagination. There is more of a sense that this building has been abandoned by the ravers than by the Catholics. A thick party detritus of beer cans and broken bottles carpets everything. My friend jokes that the monks must have left it like this. But any party held here would be the greatest party ever. As it voyaged into the night, St Peter’s would become the world capital of unbridled liberty. Alas, I can imagine this no better than the peace of the monks’ campus.
The remains of the centrepiece staircase are a deathtrap, but the concrete stairs at the far end of the building are still in one piece. Upstairs, graffiti awaits here and there, around every corner, like Easter eggs. One soon settles into enjoying the passing graffiti and it is always a lot of fun, whether a huge, slick fresco of Gollum or some perky Grosz-style caricatures or the inevitable one-liner about buggered altar boys. A lurid, sinewy devil, smirking with goats’ horns, watches over the altar. A sea of owls foams around him, but he holds up the peace sign. One suspects that there is a finer collection of art here than in the Dean Gallery, and somebody should really sit at that hole in the fence and charge admission, if only because I feel that it would be fair to hand over some money.
But this building cannot hope to remain beyond the law. There is a persistent anxiety in official circles that its destiny has not been properly supervised, or that it is undermining our laws and decency by playing fugitive from the regulation that has to stifle everything else. Proposals have come and gone, one being to transform it into some sort of hotel. Unfortunately, Cardross will need to acquire more than a golf course and a tea room before it will be in any need of a hundred-room hotel.
The current owner, NVA (Nacionale Vitae Activa), a public arts charity, is struggling to stump up £10 million to “save” the building, by arresting its structural decline and, somewhat more ominously, securing “some interior spaces for cultural and educational use.” You can picture what this entails – casting a spell of blandness over the monster, vanquishing the eerie and the dangerous, voiding all sense of its meaning. A torturous 2007 document commissioned by the Archdiocese of Glasgow and funded by Historic Scotland bristles with all of the characteristic venom of unelected bureaucrats preparing to intervene in our culture. St Peter’s is beheld rather as a missionary surveys a village full of unruly heathens, who are most definitely not noble savages:
…regard has been paid to applicability of the concept of “artless beauty,” also variously described as the “appeal of patina” or the “romance of the ruin.” It is considered, however, that the current state of dereliction, being essentially the result of gratuitous vandalism and neglect is a contingent rather than inevitable consequence of the buildings’ closure and cannot properly be regarded as significance in terms of heritage value.
Translated into English, this seems to mean that St Peter’s would only have significance as “heritage value” if its dereliction had been appropriately planned and supervised.
Aesthetically, St Peter’s is perfect as it is. The ruined seminary could not be more Gothic if it had been deliberately designed this way. It is just as rich and as beautiful as any British cathedral. It may be the nearest that Scotland has to la Sagrada Família. It all too crudely symbolises the dramatic decline of contemporary Catholicism, but there is a poetry and composure to the reiteration of momento mori. Perhaps, like the Grim Reaper, the seminary stands alone in the woods, warning surprised travellers that they too must die. Or to be more generous, perhaps, like a mutilated and reviled saint, the seminary is at peace.